However, after reading about the concept of the hexcrawl and the now-legendary West Marches campaign--around the same time my childhood interest in D&D had been rekindled after drifting away when 3.5 came out--I became intoxicated with the idea of player-guided exploration of the wilderness, where exploration was its own reward. The land is dark and full of terrors, but also fantastically cool encounters and treasures and oddities, worth wandering through even if there's no firm destination in mind.
The only problem is that there's no real system to handle it.
The Wilderness in D&DWhen looking to run something in an OSR game, the natural sources of guidance are old-school texts. First, we need to realize that wilderness travel and wilderness exploration are two different elements, though so closely interlinked that they're often treated as one and the same. D&D covered travel, but not exploration: that is, the rules tell you how to get from A to B, but not much of what to do in the meantime. Wilderness content is largely limited to random encounters and (in some versions) hunting and foraging for food; there's no mechanics for actually scouring an area, be it a hex or whatever. The general assumption seems to have been that wilderness items were essentially location-based. That is, you used the travel rules to go straight to the location you had in mind: there wouldn't be any wandering around looking for items or places of interest unless the DM first seeded it (or decided to spontaneously run with the results of a random encounter roll). The exception was with goal-based exploration: in OD&D, players looking to place their eventual name-level fortress had to scout around to find a spot they liked, which could entail some general wandering about without a set destination in mind. I'm not sure how often that happened outside of the core TSR gaming group, but it's there in the book.
Wilderness TravelLike many things, how wilderness travel worked varied across the rulesets. OD&D decided to piggyback on another set of rules: namely, Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival boardgame.
|The whole OD&D travel ruleset: short and sweet
It's actually quite an elegant system, but has the obvious shortfall of requiring another's company's product to run. As TSR expanded and D&D moved into its own, doubtless the requirement for players to buy an Avalon Hill boardgame just to run this portion of the game seemed a needless one.
So, with AD&D we get a new system. And it's not really a good one at all.
I could go into detail, but really, Delta has said it better than I could on his blog, so I'll just give a summary. In short, though still assuming that you were using hexes as the base unit of interface, AD&D layered a miles-based system on top of it. This enabled the game to break free from the need to have Outdoor Survival (I wonder how many copies were sold to OD&D players who were just looking to run their campaigns). It also allowed DMs to vary the size of their hexes to suit their campaign scale. However, the clash between hexes and miles resulted in some ugly kludges and a real pain when attempting to track movement, especially movement that crossed into terrain that gave movement modifiers. It's really not satisfactory. Unfortunately, it's the system that D&D wound up sticking with, also being used in B/X and BECMI. Even as the game was content to abstract in many other places, such as the 1-minute combat round, the 10-minute adventuring turn, gold into XP (hell, the idea of XP in general), and the concept of hit points, overland travel was left tied to a specific, granular, real-world measurement scale.
Wilderness ExplorationRegardless of how we get around the wilderness, what do we do when we're in it? Fight and maybe eat, seems to be the answer. Wilderness travel using the AD&D rules (which B/X and BECMI followed) was annoying, but resolveable: the real gap in the rules was the sense of the wilderness as a unique and separate playspace. Conceptually, the wilderness in old-school D&D is a creative and mechanical void.
Fighting is simple: there are random encounter tables, and when you find a monster, roll your reaction check and see what they feel like doing, just like in a dungeon. Hunting and foraging is in B/X and BECMI (the latter's implementation being an improvement over the B/X version), and is quite short and very easy to use. But these do not inspire, and they don't offer a new mode of play that would compel someone to wander off into the forest or desert in search of adventure. Instead, you're left with vaguaries. For example, hunting and foraging rules were present (at least for Basic), but what did it mean when you ran out of food? The rules didn't say.
Additionally, the idea of wilderness exploration in general faded out because the idea of unguided exploration as a whole disappeared. Sandbox play was something that died young in the history of D&D, players and DMs coming to prefer scripted encounters and story-based plotlines. The idea of exploration for the sake of exploration--something a wilderness venue enables quite well--was thus something few seemed to be looking for. The lack of rules and DM guidance mentioned above only compounded this.
What Does Wilderness Exploration Need?In short, I feel wilderness exploration is overlooked because of a lack of concrete adventure material and general guidance, and a lack of a robust ruleset that creates new opportunities for wilderness play. I don't think you need a fresh ruleset to run a hexcrawl or a wilderness sandbox in general (history makes this clear), but I think a good one would enhance the experience.
With all the above in mind, what do I think a wilderness ruleset meant to facilitate a hexcrawl needs?
- An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel. No trying to mash hexes and miles together. It needs to cleanly integrate mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with a base method of everyday travel. Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate. Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map is brought out must not be a groan of dismay. Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even here.
- Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play. For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, something that generally doesn't feature in wilderness or urban play. Hunting and foraging is such a wilderness example, though ideally we're going to have something more interesting than "fending off starvation". Weather is a similar one. Random encounters, already a staple of D&D, simply need to fit in to whatever new is added.
- Player-facing mechanics. As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them into choosing to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.
The second item is going to be the hardest, in that, thanks to the lack of a standard old-school template to draw off of, people have wildy varied ideas as to what wilderness exploration should even consist of and offer: not just in terms of granularity, but with regards to the base features available. One person's Fantasy Vietnam survival game is another's freewheeling pauldroncore nonsense.
For myself, I can say that I'm less interested in creating a wilderness simulator than I am a vehicle for wilderness exploration. In other words, I want more opportunities for adventure and a different style of play, rather than more realism. I'm not looking for a lot of rules, but rather, just enough to facilitiate a hexcrawl.
In my next post I'll detail the system I've come up with, bearing in mind the above.
**Speaking of expanding the possibilities of play, the less said about the late 1st-edition product Wilderness Survival Guide, the better. A book which had the opportunity to open up a whole new world of campaigning completely squandered the opportunity in order to add a host of fiddly, granular rules on top of the existing wilderness rules structure. That is, rather than adding new modes of play, it added (unneeded) granularity to existing modes. There was the occasional bit of useful material (while oddly based on character level, the jumping rules in particular are something I've found often strangely overlooked in rulesets, considering it's something every character can do and--with the number of pits and the like in dungeons--inevitably will want to do). Overall though, it's a bust: detail for the sake of detail, naturalism at its worst.